Adwa and its surroundings

The Battle of Adwa

In these mountain ranges lies the site of the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopians won a tremendous victory over a colonial European army. Tigrai has always been a battle field where many wars were fought and much blood spilled in defending the region. The history of Adwa and its surroundings mark an important phase in world history. The Battle of Adwa culminated in the decisive defeat of the invading Italian army in 1896. The Ethiopians were led by their Emperor Menelik, Empress Taitu, the War Minister and many notable Rases (high military generals) and their ranking commanders (all with extensive experience in internal campaigns and some also having fought in battles against external invaders). There were also large numbers of Ethiopian camp followers. The Italian colonial army was commanded by General Baratieri, the governor of the then Italian colony of Eritrea, and four other generals under him who led the different attacking wings. The Ethiopia army was fighting a just war in defence of their independent motherland while the Italians were colonial aggressors attacking to gain a relatively rich colony in the Horn of Africa.

In the world famous Battle of Adwa, the comparatively poorly-equipped Ethiopians triumphed over the well-armed Italian colonizers. It was the first ever victory of a black amateur army over a white professional army.

Abba Gerimma Monastery

One of the Nine Saints settled on the southern fringe of the Adwa mountain chains, now known as the Abba Gerima Monastery. To be precise, it is located at about eight km south-east of the town of Adwa. The monastery houses the oldest known Ethiopian manuscript, a vellum gospel book, carbon dated to the Late Aksumite period (6th century). The gospel is bound in two volumes, although it seems that there were originally three books, each comprising the four gospels and a set of canon tables. They are illustrated with portraits of the evangelists, standing and holding books in a pose seen later at the church of Golgotha at Lalibela. The text is in Ge’ez, although there are clear Syrian and Armenian influences in the pictorial and decorative elements, some of which may have had a stylistic influence on the detailing of the Ethiopian churches.

Apart from being one of the oldest places of christian worship in the country, the monastry is also famous for being the resting place of the body of the most famous of all African Generals, Ras Alula Aba Nega.

Debre Damo - Home of the Hermits

The monastery of Debre Damo is noted for its extraordinary location on the crown of an Imba (Table Mountain) 600m by 180m at its widest part. It is a natural fortress, with 50m high cliffs lining most of the perimeter except for a short portion at the northeast end which provides the only point of access to the mountain monastery. Access is provided to men only, as female visitors are not allowed to the church, by climbing or being hoisted on a 15m plaited leather rope, the “Jende”, which is hanging dawn from the top of the cliff. The church is dedicated to its founder, AbuneAregawi (Zemikael), one of the ‘nine saints’ who taught gospel in the country in the 6th century. According to local tradition, AbuneAregawi is believed to have been taken to the top of the Imba with help of a serpent which was commanded to do so by God. Today the ’Jende’ symbolizes this miraculous serpent. One can use the natural footholds to climb the cliff. Inexperienced visitors need to tie their waists with the additional rope provided by the church and climb up the rough cliff.

On top of the Imba are two churches. The main one, 20m deep and 9m wide, was constructed under the auspices of Emperor GebreMeskel, the Aksumite Ethiopian king who reigned in the 6th century. It is believed to have been built on the very site where the serpent had safely dropped the founder. Described by Richard Pankhurst as “a veritable jewel of ancient Ethiopian architecture”, the church is built following an Aksumite style of construction: layers of stone alternated with layers of wood. The walls are constructed of stones and strengthened with longitudinal beams, which are themselves fixed to the walls with projecting woods otherwise known as “monkey heads”. The walls of the church show resemblance to the decorative styles displayed on the obelisks of Aksum. The monolithic pillars, the beams, the wooden doors, and windows depict Aksumite architecture.

On the ceiling of the sanctuary one can observe wooden carvings of different animals such as cattle, elephants, water birds, etc. Ancient stone pillars can also be seen in the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. In spite of repeated restorations over the centuries, the original church at Debre Damo still maintains the glamour and grace of the original church.

Famous for its superior Christian scholarship, difficult location and ecclesiastical treasures, the monastery of Debre Damo stands out as a site of unvarnished, authentic monastic life. Young monks from all corners of the country flock to Debre Damo in pursuit of Christian learning.  Even today, the monastery of Debre Damo is viewed as the Harvard of Christian scholarship in Ethiopia.

Indeed, Debre Damo has become synonymous with monasticism in Ethiopia. According to the renowned scholar of Ethiopian history, Richard Pankhurst, Debre Damo “takes today’s traveler into a past age and leaves him with a deeper understanding of Ethiopia’s age–old and unique civilization than mere words can give. “

Debre Damo is also rich in religious and royal treasures of national significance. Ancient coins that date back to as early as the 1st and 3rd century AD, which reveal Ethiopia’s trade relations with India and Egypt, were discovered in Debre Damo.